Seeking the Good Amidst a Rise in Hate

Every politician’s favorite feel-good line – oft-attributed to de Tocqueville, wrongly – is that “America is great because America is good.” Hillary Clinton cited it often during the campaign, to tell us a story about ourselves, to make voters attend to some aspiration supposedly growing native in our national character to prize liberty, justice, fairness, respect, tolerance.

Frankly, I don’t feel so good. Like many of you, I am sick to my stomach about what the post-election phase has revealed.

A stone has been lifted, a log rolled over, and a nauseating collection of creepy-crawling impulses has emerged, reminding us that – alongside whatever our impulse to good – we have considerable ill tendencies. Perhaps you affirm some of the new president’s policies, but I find it hard to ignore that Trump’s election has triggered disgraceful expressions of bigotry and violence.

From the “sieg heils” and stiff-arm salutes of last month’s alt-right conference to a disturbing surge in hate crimes, it is obvious that America is seeing increased viciousness toward minority ethnicities, religions, and sexual and gender identities. Last year, before the election, there had already been a marked rise in hate crimes, as the FBI reported last month, comparing data from 2014 and 2015. Crimes targeting Muslims rose 67 percent, and anti-Semitic crimes rose 9 percent.

That’s just last year. This week, I and other Manhattan clergy met with District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr. on this theme and other community relations issues. We learned that in the last six weeks, compared with the same period, November-December of 2015, hate crimes in New York rose by 157 percent. Recalling the horrible Abner Louima case of 1997 – in which cops abusing an immigrant taunted him that it is “Giuliani time” – I fear that violent, hateful people think it is “Trump time.”

Just in the last week, NYC’s hate crimes included the well-publicized case of a hijab-wearing NYPD officer and her son assaulted. Around the country there were threatening letters sent to mosques, some promising that the President Trump will “do to you what Hitler did to the Jews.” Comparatively minor, but closer to home, incidents, like swastikas defacing our own #1 train. The Upper West Side’s train?! Keep track of these with the Times reports This Week in Hate.

Don’t take any of this lightly. Jewish history should teach anyone that when someone threatens political and ethnic violence – you should believe them. I was impressed with DA Vance and the staff of his hate crime unit. They take this seriously.

Perhaps, once in power, the new White House will display its tolerant and peaceful impulses. But after a campaign which featured the ugliest threats and basest racist and anti-Semitic dog whistles, it is likely that we – you and I – must remind the new president how to love and defend his fellow citizens.

One way to do that: many of you will want to participate in a January 21 march, the day after the inauguration, to defend the civil rights and dignity of all Americans regardless of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation or disability. This demonstration will go from the UN to Trump Tower.

As this takes place on Shabbat, many UWS Jews will want an alternative way of participating. There will be a delegation walking from our neighborhood to Trump Tower, to join the main group. For more info on this, please reach out to Shana Roskies, Stef Krieger and Mary Krieger, who are serving as “captains” for Ansche Chesed members who wish to join.

Glimmers of hope and faith: my meeting at the DA’s office was a remarkable encounter itself an interfaith and interracial moment that gave me confidence that we NYC citizens, at least, live in an atmosphere of mutual respect. True, as has been the case in many interfaith moments during my career, people happily asserted that “Christ’s love” is the only answer. But in the main, people of different backgrounds affirmed that what is demanded of us to respect the multiple paths by which communities find faith and purpose.

A few weeks ago, when we visited an African-American mosque in Harlem, I was moved when the imam told a Kuranic story of when Moses and the Israelites were trapped at the Red Sea, until one person had the faith to stride into the waters – instantly familiar to Jews as the midrashic story of Nachshon ben Amminadav.

The same experience came back to me this week at the DA’s office, as a different imam shared another Kuranic teaching – that if you are planting a tree and someone tells you that redemption is at hand, first finish planting your tree. Well, that is none other than the Avot d’Rabbi Natan (Version 2) chapter 31, in the name of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai: “If there is a sapling in your hand and someone tells you the Messiah has arrived, finish planting your tree, then greet him.”

Our shared teachings remind us that a) the various Abrahamic faiths draw upon common founts of traditional wisdom and that b) religious people across faiths confront similar problems and respond in similar ways. There are real and profound divisions among Jews, Christians and Muslims. Let us not be naïve. But we are all people of faith, seeking to recognize the infinitely valuable image of God in all human life.

That is what we religious people offer America in the age of division: we give soul to the city. “Seek peace for the city where I have sent you, and pray for its well-being. For in its well-being it will be well for all.” So says Jeremiah 29.7. Amen.